Dem leaders' hard sell pays off on omnibus

Dem leaders' hard sell pays off on omnibus
© Greg Nash
A full-court press by House Democratic leaders paid big dividends in Friday's lopsided vote to adopt an enormous year-end spending bill.

Dozens of liberal Democrats were lining up against the proposal on Wednesday and Thursday, citing a host of complaints that ranged from the end of a crude oil export ban to a dearth of spending on social services to the absence of help for Puerto Rico's financial crisis.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOvernight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Oil lease sale in Alaska nets .5M | House climate panel likely won't pass bills | EPA hires new head of Chesapeake office Stephen King torches Trump over border wall: 'Do something good for once' Pelosi agrees to term limits vote; insurgency collapses MORE (D-Calif.) gave voice to those criticisms, hammering the oil provision as a job-killing environmental disaster and blasting an accompanying tax package as "an immorality." 

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But as a chief architect of the overall spending proposal, she also gave it a full-throated endorsement, defending the package writ large from the liberal attacks and framing the negotiations as a victory for Democrats.

Officially, Democratic leaders claimed not to be whipping the vote. But to outside observers it sure looked that way, as Pelosi, her leadership team and top appropriators took to the phones to outline the merits of the package and urge support. Their campaign ran late Thursday night and into Friday morning.

"This is a huge bill ... and there were some misunderstandings about what was in the bill and what wasn't in the bill," Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyOval Office clash ups chances of shutdown Overnight Defense: Trump, Dem leaders fight before cameras over border wall | GOP skeptical of having military build wall | US spars with Russia, Venezuela over bomber deployment Trump, Democrats battle over wall in Oval Office spat MORE (D-N.Y.), senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said Friday. "So we were able to resolve it this morning, and working with my colleagues on appropriations, we were able to spread the facts."

The campaign worked. 

Only 18 Democrats defected on Friday, ensuring easy passage on the House floor, 316 to 113. And many of the early critics said it was the eleventh-hour lobbying by leaders and appropriators that spun their vote.

"But when my colleagues and our leadership team really spelled out for all of us — I think, particularly, for members of the Congressional Black Caucus — the details of what was in the omnibus and the value that is going to come back to each and every one of our communities, it became incredibly clear that the list of wins outweighs the list of negatives. 

"And that begged for a 'yes' vote."

The Democrats were not always so enthused by the budget package. After GOP leaders unveiled the bill early Wednesday morning, liberals assailed the legislation as a giveaway to Big Oil and other well-heeled interests at the expense of families and the working classes.

"I think it's a disgrace," Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said Thursday.

Pelosi heard an earful of comparable complaints in a pair of Wednesday meetings with members of the Progressive Caucus and the Tri-Caucus, which consists of black, Hispanic and Asian-American lawmakers. There was a similarly contentious meeting with the full Democratic Caucus Thursday morning.

Many liberals left those meetings suggesting — if not vowing — to oppose the omnibus when it hit the floor.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), predicted Thursday that most members of the group would reject the package. 

"They're adamantly opposed and trying to encourage me [to join them]," Clay said.

Then Democratic leaders went into overdrive. 

Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi agrees to term limits vote; insurgency collapses Tim Ryan backs term limits deal with Pelosi Dem rep says term limits should be considered for House leadership MORE (D-Md.) and other top Democrats reached out to wary lawmakers to detail the package’s specifics. White House officials joined the push, with several Cabinet members urging rank-and-file Democrats to get on board. And Pelosi issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to her troops Thursday night, followed by another Friday morning. She also issued a "fact sheet" listing the "Democratic wins."

The notes emphasized that, while Democrats were forced to accept the crude export provision, the absence of conservative "poison pill" riders and the inclusion of renewable energy benefits were more than enough to offset the damage.

Senior appropriators including Lowey and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), meanwhile, stressed that they'd fought successfully for new funding for a host of social programs — funding that would remain stagnant if the omnibus failed and Congress was forced to fall back on a continuing resolution (CR).

"What we were able to get ... was the ability for people to go home and say to families, 'There are more Head Start slots, there's more for early childhood education, there's more for job training, and more for antibiotic resistance, so we can change people's lives,'" DeLauro said Friday. "That is what turned people around this morning and last night."

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was working his side of the aisle with a similar intensity, helped to grease the skids when he vowed to address Puerto Rico's financial crisis as a first order of business when Congress reconvenes next year. 

That promise was enough to attract the support of some of Puerto Rico's loudest Democratic advocates, including New York Reps. Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano. (Gutiérrez remained a "no").

"What happened was, over [the last] 24 hours, members reflected on what they did get — the glass was about 80 percent or 90 percent full, not half empty," Hoyer said after Friday's vote. "Yesterday it was half empty; today it was 90 percent full, and I think that resulted in the overwhelming vote that we saw."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) would agree. The former CBC chairman was one of the early omnibus opponents who ultimately backed the bill.

"There was a whole group of us who said we were going to vote 'no' and stop this thing," he said after the vote.

Cleaver said he changed his tune upon realizing that the package contained a number of provisions he's been championing, including new funding for police body cameras and Section 8 vouchers.

He also said that, after years advocating for more civility and bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, he felt a need to match actions to words. 

"I was ready to line up my colleagues to vote 'no' and attack the other side, and say, you know, they were kissing on the wealthy and beating on the poor," Cleaver said. "And then I thought, you know, here I am doing exactly what I asked my colleagues not to do."